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Decline in farmland worrying farmers, agricultural organizations

RICHMOND, VA — The steep decline in U.S. farmland is raising an alarm among farmers and agricultural organizations.

According to the recent 2022 U.S. Census of Agriculture, the country has lost 20.1 million acres of farmland since the 2017 census. That’s three times all the farmland acreage in Virginia, and an area about the size of Maine.

Virginia has lost nearly 500,000 acres of farmland in the last five years.

The recent Ag Census demonstrates the rapid loss of U.S. farmland.

“Just stop and think about that for a minute,” said Wayne Pryor, president of Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “That’s a lot of land to take out of production in a short period of time.”

Farmland is vital for global food security, local food systems, wildlife habitats and environmental efforts like sequestering carbon in soil and protecting water quality. According to the American Farmland Trust’s Farms Under Threat report, farmland loss is attributed to increasing commercial, industrial and residential development, particularly from urban and suburban creep surrounding established urban centers, as well as rural sprawl.

Increasing non-residential development like utility-scale solar facilities—a fast-growing industry in Virginia—also contributes, as these facilities favor high-quality farmland since it’s typically flat, dry, cleared and close to existing infrastructure. An AFT report on solar development modeling stated over 2 million agricultural acres are projected for conversion to solar development between 2020 and 2040. Of that, nearly half is expected to occur on nationally significant land, the nation’s best land for long-term agricultural production.

Among states with agricultural land predicted to be converted to utility-scale solar facilities, Virginia ranks 12th in the nation, with 45,900 farmland acres projected for conversion.

The Farms Under Threat report also found more than 40% of U.S. farmland is owned by people over 65. Up to 370 million acres of farmland will change ownership over the next 20 years, “increasing the possibility that the land will be sold for development.”

Additionally, the lack of farmland and increasing fragmentation of remaining farmland has led to escalating land prices—increasing barriers to entry for new and young farmers.

Farmland is a finite resource, Pryor noted. Once lost to development, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to transition the land back into agricultural production.

While efficiency and technological advancements have allowed farmers to increase their productivity with less acreage and resources, demand for food and fiber is ever-increasing. According to a report from American Farm Bureau Federation, the U.S. population more than doubled since 1950, rising from 159 million in 1950 to 340 million in 2023. The global population more than tripled, increasing from 2.5 billion to 8 billion during the same period.

“Populations are going to continue growing, and the need for more agricultural production is going to grow with it,” Pryor said.

Farmers are resilient, but the loss of farmland, combined with lower profit margins and high production expenses like equipment, feed, crop inputs, supply costs and labor, has caused farmers to question their economic viability—particularly among small and midsize farms. The census reported that Virginia lost over 4,200 farms. Nationally, the number of farms decreased more than 141,000 since 2017.

“This loss is just in five years,” Pryor said. “What’s it going to be in another 50 years?”


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